In my favourite part of Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” the two main characters are brought together to run their fingertips along the edge of the human-shaped emptiness that had been left inside them after the suicide of their common friend. Watanabe, the typical Murakamian passive yet stubbornly ingenious male protagonist visits Naoko; an offbeat, come-hither yet sexually unavailable female protagonist, at the isolation of a mental hospital she resides to. Contrary to Murakami’s otherwise dreamlike allegorical style, the lyrical realism which characterises Norwegian wood is, amongst other, proved by his obsession with the preservation of memories. This time though, instead of diving into his formulaic narrative mechanisms of the Hollywood noir, he proves in a flatly realistic prose what he has elsewhere stated: “You can hide memories, but you can't erase the history that produced them.” Since the characters seem to have been tossed, without their permission, into a maze, and as Murakami always uses musical references as an antidote to the ‘narrowness of spoken words’, the necessity to follow the discographic music paths in order to fully interpret the attributes of the story, soaks the dramatic plot into a tender, limpid, soft lyricism, which only Murakami’s purely melancholic style of writing could have succeeded.
While Naoko narrates about her relationship with their friend, she describes -under the writer’s fondness for hackneyed- how they grew up together, shaping their existence before each other’s eyes, how they owned each other’s bodies, how their thoughts were as if only made to be revealed to each other before wrapping themselves into meaninglessness again. At that point she states “We could not bear to be apart. So if he had lived, I’m sure we would have been together, loving each other and gradually growing unhappy.” Watanabe interrupts her narrative, puzzled, questioning why she said unhappy. Her response, which epitomises disillusionment in a nostalgic-for-missing-idealism sense is: ““Because we would have had to pay the world back what we owed it. The pain of growing up. We did not pay when we should have, so now the bills are due. This is why he did what he did, and why I am here. We were like kids who grew up naked on a desert island. If we got hungry, we would just pick a banana; if we got lonely, we would sleep in each other’s arms. But that kind of thing does not last forever. We grew up fast and had to enter society. Which is why you were so important to us. You were the link connecting us with the outside. We were struggling through you to fit in with the outside world as best we could. In the end, it did not work of course.”
The sense of loss, which exists in all his stories, is related to the actual death of the characters’ friend as well as to mental destabilisation of the ones (and specifically Naoko) left behind. That void, is viewed as struggled to be filled with the insistence on shielding memories, protecting them from decay. Although such preservation initially regards the dead friend, it seems to gradually becoming a key-element of Naoko and Watanabe’s relationship, which exceeds the need to keep alive a part of their childhood and becomes their core code of conduct, in an obsessive and enslaving manner which hooks them together. They yearn for the one to remember the other, as a payoff of all the memories they forced themselves to cradle inside them.
Murakami has elsewhere stated that the world is an endless battle of contrasting memories and that “nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.” The characters have proved that they did not desire to forget but that the memories-battle kept haunting them in an overwhelming sense of dreadful self-destruction. Yet, there can be no act of preservation without a certain element of danger, if the maintenance of attributes of the past affects in destabilising ways the present, to the point that the past memories are preferable than any trial to create new ones. That was proven in an earlier allegorical quote in Murakami’s South of the Border west of the Sun: “Sometimes when I look at you, I feel I'm gazing at a distant star. It's dazzling, but the light is from tens of thousands of years ago. Maybe the star doesn't even exist any more. Yet sometimes that light seems more real to me than anything.”
The solid realism wherein the characters are forced, makes happiness unbearable for them, proving that there is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief. Yet, although most of them give up, Watanabe chooses to nourish the void within him by embracing the guarantee for the sentimental chaos. Although he had found equilibrium within sadness, he gazed towards what was promising his own destabilisation, and, for the first time, eagerly reached out for it. Borrowing from Murakami’s techniques, I may let a song conclude: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzGgredU05g
To A. as a reminder of the fact that all kisses bear a certain element of danger and that such memories should not be left to fade.
Written and curated by Marianna Serveta
Lensed by Elen Aivali.
Special thanks to Diana Kavalieri for the graphic designs of the blog and Noel for the hospitality.